Thaiss Displays Prowess At The Plate, Behind It

DURHAM, N.C.—In the fifth inning Friday night, Virginia catcher Matt Thaiss pulverized a 93 mph fastball, powering it several rows deep into the right-field bleachers, somewhere just below the stratosphere. A three-run home run. The ball didn’t stand a chance. 

Thaiss wasn’t done. After the game—a 6-0 win for No. 10 Virginia over Duke—he continued his blatant disrespect for that baseball.

“I don’t want it; you keep it,” Thaiss said when offered the actual home run ball by a Baseball America reporter who will remain unnamed. After a second of awkwardness, Thaiss agreed to take it, then walked over to starting pitcher Connor Jones and crammed it into his glove as he spoke with reporters.

“Here, take it; it’s your 200th strikeout ball,” Thaiss told Jones. A lie, of course. Jones just laughed it off, a bit perplexed.

That’s Matt Thaiss. The junior isn’t one to bask in his own successes. And like most catchers who take the position seriously, he thinks of his pitching staff first; himself, second. He likes to have a little fun with those pitchers, too.

“He’s a Jersey guy (from Jackson, N.J.), but he’s kind of laid back,” Jones said. “He’ll be quieter than you expect most Jersey guys to be. He’s a great guy. Doing something like that is something he does more often than not.”

Thaiss—ranked No. 98 on the Top 100 Draft Prospects for 2016—is in many ways the pulse of this Virginia team, especially with senior catcher Robbie Coman missing the rest of the year with Tommy John surgery.

Thaiss caught every inning for the national champion Cavaliers down the stretch last season, and he had a breakout year with the bat, leading the team with 10 home runs and a .323/.413/.512 line in 254 at-bats.

He’s been just as productive this season, batting .358/.477/.547 with two home runs through his first 53 at-bats. But more important for Thaiss have been the improvements to his defense behind the plate, where scouts have knocked him in the past.

Not an everyday-quality catcher when he came to campus, Thaiss displayed some of the gains he’s made Friday night, catching the No. 10 draft prospect in the country. He guided Jones, a junior righthander, to an efficient, zone-pounding, eight-inning scoreless effort, in which Jones didn’t issue a walk and struck out three on 108 pitches. Jones throws a heavy low 90’s fastball that touched 95 mph with sink on Friday, and he threw several splitters in the dirt—all of which Thaiss were able to wrangle.

“I think the guy’s turned himself into an above-average catcher, I really do,” said Virginia head coach Brian O’Connor. “He’s got arm strength, and he blocks all those balls. And Connor Jones is not an easy guy to catch with that splitter in the dirt. Thaiss is blocking every one of those balls. That’s impressive.”

Jones said he doesn’t second-guess a single splitter he throws to Thaiss. It’s taken some practice, though, in part because the 86-87 mph pitch has turned into such an effective weapon for Jones.

“I’m still in awe of how much that pitch moves,” Thaiss said. “I don’t understand the physics of it. It dives. Sometimes it dives that way; sometimes it dives straight down. It took some learning to get through, but luckily I’m not hitting off of it; I’m catching it.”

Of course, Thaiss could probably put a solid swing on it, if he had to. On Friday, he faced another talented pitcher in his own right in Duke righthander Bailey Clark—No. 46 in the Top 100—and managed to take him deep. With hordes of scouts in the stands to see the premium pitching matchup, Thaiss put on a show with his no-doubt shot on a fastball that ran over the middle of the plate.

Thaiss downplayed the homer, saying he thought freshman Nate Eikhoff had the bigger hit—a two-out RBI single that got UVa. on the board in a scoreless game. Thaiss just laughed when he saw the video of his own home-run swing. There’s no way he was going to take the ball—even if it meant fibbing to a teammate.

“Ah, that’s messed up,” Jones said, laughing, when he heard Thaiss lied about the ball. “I’m giving that right back … I’ll find a way to give it to him one way or another.”

Good luck.

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